5 Takeaways from Tuesday’s Special Election in Pennsylvania | NTK Network 5 Takeaways from Tuesday’s Special Election in Pennsylvania

5 Takeaways from Tuesday’s Special Election in Pennsylvania

Tuesday night, voters went to the polls to vote in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.

By NTK Staff | 03.14.2018 @10:30am
5 Takeaways from Tuesday’s Special Election in Pennsylvania

Tuesday night, voters went to the polls to vote in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. As of Wednesday morning, the race was too close to call between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone, as Lamb held up to a small lead of a few hundred votes.

The results come in a district that went for President Trump by 20 points in 2016. Both parties were active in the race and are this morning assessing what went right and what went wrong. Below are the top takeaways from the results:

1) The Republican Warning Signs Are Clear

While some Republicans feared an even worse result on Tuesday, the near tie in a district that went so overwhelmingly in favor of President Trump in 2016 was “an ominous sign,” and as The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker writes “reignited fears” about the midterms. Drucker goes on to write:

The Republican collapse in a Tuesday special election in Southwest Pennsylvania has reignited fears that enactment of the historic tax overhaul won’t help the party escape the midterm downdraft from President Trump. The Democrats erased a 20 percentage point Trump advantage in the typically Republican 18th Congressional District, with Democrat Conor Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone by a hair with most precincts in and the absentee votes yet to count. It wasn’t the blowout some Republicans feared, but the development signals a toxic political atmosphere made more so by a polarizing president whose domination of the media has overwhelmed good news about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and its positive impact on the economy.

For Republicans, if this is the result in a Trump district, what about those running in districts that Hillary Clinton captured in 2016? As ABC News points out, “there are easily 100 House districts that are likely to be more competitive” than PA-18. And last night’s outcome comes after gubernatorial elections in 2017, the Alabama Senate special election, and numerous state legislative special elections all went the other way. Wednesday morning, Stu Rothenberg neatly summarized, “Democrat Conor Lamb either narrowly lost a congressional district that went for Trump by 20 points, or he won it. Either way, that’s bad news for the GOP.”

2) Does the Trump Coalition Translate?

It’s a question without an answer yet. For his eight years in office, President Obama’s coalition never translated to other Democrats. Could the same be true for President Trump? It’s something Republican candidates will have to focus on navigating in 2018, as the president campaigned in the district twice amid a slew of GOP surrogates who traveled to Pennsylvania. For Rothenberg in Roll Call, this was the true story of last night:

If GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone ends up winning, Republicans may heave a sigh of relief that they didn’t lose a seat. But that is not the story. The real story is Saccone badly underperforming Trump. Clearly, either some Trump voters didn’t turn out, or other Trump voters defected to Lamb. Or both things happened.

3) Candidates Really Do Matter

Long before yesterday, Republicans had already begun to argue that Conor Lamb was a superior candidate to Rick Saccone, and they were right. As ABC notes, “candidates matter, and last night’s race proved no except”:

Special elections are weird, a unique snapshot of a particular place and time. But candidates matter, and last night’s race proved no exception. The Democrat Conor Lamb was well-poised, well-known and proved capable of threading a delicate needle in the conservative, rust-belt-ish district. Lamb pulled off a two-fer in western Pennsylvania, turning out more voters in bluer areas of the district near Pittsburgh as well as swing voters in ruby, red areas too. For example, President Trump won Greene County, in the far southwest corner of the state, by 43 points in 2016. Tuesday night, Lamb had shrunk that margin to about 16 points.

In general, Lamb ran a better campaign with better messaging and fundraising. He was able to push back on Republican attacks effectively as Reuters neatly summarizes:

Republicans found it harder than expected to mount effective attacks on Lamb’s positions on abortion, guns and the national Democratic Party. He has also eschewed the national Democrat brand, saying he would not support House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Lamb says he personally opposes abortion but accepts the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision allowing abortion as the law of the land. Lamb, who hails from a prominent Pennsylvania political family, rarely mentions Trump, focusing on economic issues, healthcare and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Lamb used very traditional Democrat messaging to define his opponent on labor issues, Social Security, and Medicare, and to energize the PA-18 Democrat voter base:

On the ground, unions ran an aggressive turnout operation, winning back many members who had backed Trump for president. Lamb’s campaign focused on preserving Medicare and Social Security, and warning that Republican policies would put them at risk. The United Mine Workers of America, which had sat out the 2016 election, endorsed Lamb when the Democrat promised to support legislation that would fully fund their pensions. That was one of several issues where Saccone never tried to meet or outflank Lamb. On Monday, as he campaigned at Canonsburg’s famous Sarris Candies with Trump Jr., Saccone dodged a question about the bill on miners’ pensions and accused a reporter who asked about it of talking to “liberals” instead of real miners.

Ultimately, Drucker from The Washington Examiner called Lamb “the perfect Democrat to run strong in a conservative seat” while “Saccone would have easily performed better had he fielded a competent campaign and raised more money.”

In a statement to The Washington Examiner, Corry Bliss, who leads up the Congressional Leadership Fund, was pretty blunt:

“This is a very tough environment for Republicans. To be successful, we need good candidates who run strong campaigns,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of Congressional Leadership Fund. “It’s not nice to say this, but the Saccone campaign was a joke. The way this is supposed to work, the campaign gets to the 20-yard line, and we can help get them to the end zone, but in this case, the campaign couldn’t find the field.”

Matt Gorman from the National Republican Congressional Committee was also pretty clear:

“Campaigns and candidates matter,” said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect GOP House members. Gorman brushed aside the idea that tax cuts were less politically potent than hoped, noting that candidates are responsible for defining opponents, raising sufficient money and telling an empathetic story — elements that Republicans in Washington and Pennsylvania have cited as deficiencies in Saccone’s campaign. Asked whether he was blaming the messenger over the message, Gorman replied, “If you can’t get your message out, then you don’t have a message.”

4) Bad Night for Pelosi, Good Night for Moulton and Biden

The one Democrat surely not happy about the Lamb victory is Nancy Pelosi. The PA-18 Democrat rejected the House Democrat leader outright, even running an ad saying so. At the same time, if Pelosi lost last night, Joe Biden and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), who both campaigned for Lamb, won by proving their messages can translate to Democrats and voters no matter who won the district in 2016.

5) Let’s Not Hyperventilate Over One Night’s Results

It’s important to remember that this “district will soon no longer exist,” due to a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Both Lamb and Saccone actually have to decide if they will run in new districts in November and must collect 1,000 signatures from those districts by March 20 in order to qualify for the ballot. Whoever just won is already running again. Regardless of the actual existence of the district, we also won’t have exit polling to help determine who was driven to the polls, their demographics, and the issues they voted on.

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